Finding My Community: Celebrating Black History Month in Indianapolis

Through2Eyes Tour of Indianapolis with Sampson Levingston

Learning about history can really change your perception of a city. At first glance, it’s hard to see all of the cultures, leaders, and movements that shape our home. But somehow, we still have to find a place where we belong. 

Fortunately, our ancestors gave us a strong foundation to build on—and Black history is a powerful part of that story.

For me, I didn’t know much about Indianapolis before I moved here last December. As a freelancer, my work took me all across the country. But at the end of the day, I always came back to my hometown in Cleveland. 

Then, in 2021, I started looking for a change. I decided that if I wanted to grow, then I needed to start taking more risks. So, within the span of two weeks, I got a new job, found an apartment in Indy, packed up my whole life, and left my family behind. 

Moving 317 miles away from everyone I knew was a daunting experience, especially as a Black woman. It’s important for me to feel connected to my community, and I didn’t know what to expect from Indianapolis. I needed to find the significance of this unfamiliar place. 

So, I went out and started exploring the region, looking for ways to get involved. And Indy did not disappoint! With Black History Month in full swing, I found some amazing events across the city and saw firsthand how the Black community has shaped Hoosier history. 

Sampson Levingston giving a tour of Indianapolis
People dancing during a tour of Indianapolis

1. Black History Walk & Talk Tour – Through2Eyes

I think the most memorable event I attended was a Walk & Talk tour of Indiana Avenue, guided by Sampson Levingston at Through2Eyes

Sampson is an Indianapolis native and a self-professed “lover of Indiana history.” In 2017, he started Through2Eyes to create a space for people to learn and connect with local history. Now, he offers walking tours around the city, teaching people about the Black history hidden all around us.

During the two-hour tour, Sampson’s enthusiasm is what really made the adventure special. As we walked, he showed us beautiful murals and historic homes along the avenue. He played music from Black musicians, connecting each piece to historic locations and having us compete to guess the song title. And Sampson even showed us an old Green Book, which was basically a Yellow Pages of places and businesses across the U.S. that were safe for Black people to visit. 

But if there’s anything I learned from the experience, it’s that Black history is Indiana history. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, and the legacies of Black creators, entrepreneurs, and civic leaders are alive and well in Indianapolis. You just have to pay attention! 

So, even if you don’t have a passion for history, I still think the Through2Eyes tour is a must-see experience for every Hoosier. I definitely want to go on more tours with Sampson and learn about the history of other Indianapolis neighborhoods. I’m especially excited for his upcoming Fountain Square tour, so I can learn more about the community where I live and work!

Woman posing at the Indiana Historical Society Madam C.J. Walker exhibit

2. Madam C.J. Walker, Empowering Women Exhibit – Indiana Historical Society

You can’t discuss Black history in Indiana without talking about Madam C.J. Walker! Maybe you’ve written a report on her for school. Maybe you walked by her products in Sephora, or maybe you watched the Self-Made Netflix series inspired by her life. 

No matter what, you’ve certainly heard her name, but you may not know her legacy. 

Madam C.J. Walker was the first Black woman in America to become a self-made millionaire. She was a renowned beauty guru, famous for her revolutionary hair care products—and Indianapolis was her base of operations.

But Madam C.J. Walker was more than just an entrepreneur. She was also a passionate activist and philanthropist, who always gave back to the Indy community. She promoted education, supported the arts, and donated her money to Black-owned organizations to fight against racial discrimination. 

Today, the impact of her work lives on through events like the Madam C.J. Walker, Empowering Women exhibit. I had an awesome time exploring the exhibit, and the Indiana Historical Society did a great job bringing her story to life. Not only was her infamous Model T car right before my eyes, but they also had an immersive recreation of her factory, with costumed actors portraying people from Walker’s life!

Artists Lavett Ballard presents her gallery in Indianapolis

3. My Soul Has Got to Move Art Exhibit – Long-Sharp Gallery

My next stop was a new exhibit at the Long-Sharp Gallery, featuring mixed-media artist Lavett Ballard. She named her exhibit “My Soul Has Got to Move” as a reference to a gospel-funk-soul song from 1978—a song that resonates with the overarching themes of Black expression and feminism in her art.

I actually had a chance to talk with Lavett while I was there, and meeting her was such a pleasure! She’s a dynamic human being who just lights up a room, and she infuses that brilliance into every piece she makes. In fact, Lavett incorporates a variety of mediums into each piece, so she uses everything from wood to fire to share her story. 

As I walked through the gallery, each work of art reminded me of the special moments that come with growing up in a Black household. It was a celebration of our hair and our language, the nicknames we call each other, the traditions of our parents, and the courage to accept change. Everywhere I looked, her art was a vibrant celebration of Black culture!

The majority of people in attendance weren’t even Black, but it felt really momentous to be there and see how much people appreciated Lavett’s work. They may not understand her art in the same way I did, but I loved seeing people applaud and honor the beauty of another person’s experience.

Butler University hosts Black History Month concert

4. A Jubilee! Black History Month Arts Celebration – Butler University

One of the coolest things about Indy is the local university network. My apartment is close to downtown Indianapolis, so I’m just minutes away from IUPUI, Butler University, the University of Indianapolis, and Ivy Tech. 

That proximity is great for students, but it’s also perfect for residents like me. These schools host lots of interesting events, concerts, and lectures, and many of them are free for the public!

This month, I went over to Butler University for their annual Black History Month Arts Celebration. The concert was particularly special because every piece they featured was created by a Black artist. There were opera singers performing historic works, swing dancers celebrating jazz music, and monologues honoring Maya Angelou. The orchestra even played modern hits by Lenny Kravitz and Stevie Wonder!

It was also awesome to see Black conductors running the show. That’s something I don’t often see, and it made the entire concert feel more meaningful. 

But for me, the most powerful part of the concert was the last performance. Everyone in the auditorium stood up and sang the Black National Anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing. Hearing everyone sing in unity was a beautiful moment and a great way to end the show!

Landmark of Peace Memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. in Indianapolis

5. Landmark for Peace Memorial – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park 

Throughout Black History Month, Monument Circle is hosting a nightly light show to commemorate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. After seeing the show and hearing his words, I was excited to discover another tribute to MLK here in Indy. 

Just north of downtown Indianapolis, there’s a 14-acre park dedicated to honoring the life and words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. That park is actually the place where President Kennedy addressed the nation after MLK’s assassination. In respect of that tragic night, Indianapolis leaders built a lasting monument to peace.

The Landmark for Peace stands tall alongside the park’s main walkway, with a statue of Kennedy on one side and MLK on the other. The two figures are symbolically (and literally) reaching for each other, hands outstretched but never to meet. As you explore the park, you can walk underneath the monument in the shadow of their arms. 

During Kennedy’s speech in 1968, he said that we need to stop and ask “what kind of nation we are and what direction do we want to move in.” And as I stood under the monument, I thought about how that question is still important today. 

We can’t just ignore people’s differences and be blind to the issues unfolding in front of our eyes. The only way to move forward is to acknowledge the differences and traditions of other people and help them feel seen, protected, and valued. 

As new generations grow old, I hope people continue to learn about Black history and help our country grow beyond the mistakes of the past.

Painting at Ixkenna art exhibit in Indianapolis
Model at Ixkenna art exhibit in Indianapolis

6. Ixkenna World Mixed Media Exhibit – Cultural Arts Gallery at IUPUI 

When I think about Black history, I don’t just think about the impactful leaders of the past. I also think about all of the Black creators and innovators who are forging the future!

Ixkenna is one of those artists that we’re going to learn about in history books. Ikenna Stovall was born in Lagos, Nigeria, and came to Indianapolis when he was seven. He attended IUPUI and earned his Bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering and his Master’s in Cybersecurity. 

But now, Ixkenna is an engineer-turned-creator. He applies his engineering knowledge to everything from photography to fashion, and he’s already been featured on Essence, Vogue Italia, and ASOS for his stylist skills. 

In honor of Black History Month, Ixkenna hosted his first solo exhibition at IUPUI’s Cultural Arts Gallery. His exhibit showcased models wearing outfits he’s styled, as well as fashionable dresses on mannequins throughout the gallery. 

I also appreciated how Ixkenna featured a lot of dark-skinned Black women in the gallery! Especially in fashion, it’s hard to find spaces that showcase the beauty of Black women—with outfits built for every shade and skin tone. 

With Ixkenna’s gallery free and open to the public, I hope that this exhibit helps inspire Black creatives to feel seen, even on predominantly white college campuses.

Woman smiling before entering a concert at Butler University

I found my community here in Indianapolis.

Moving to Indiana was one of the most intimidating things I’ve ever done. But I’m so glad that I took a risk and came to Indianapolis! 

Over the past month, I discovered so many Black artists, events, and stories that helped me find parts of myself in Indy. From Madam C.J. Walker’s activism and Sampson Levingston’s passion, to Lavett Ballard’s artistry and Ixkenna’s creativity, every encounter was meaningful. And I’m so grateful for everything I learned about my new home. 

After all, it’s hard to feel at home without your community. It’s especially hard when you look around and don’t see many people like you. But you have to remember that community can be anywhere, and it’s often hidden in plain sight! 

Thanks to these events, I learned that home isn’t just familiar faces in the house you grew up in. Home is about connecting with your roots, wherever your travels take you.   

As I continue to put down roots in Indianapolis, I hope my experience helps you discover your own community here in Indy. This region truly has a rich culture, and I can’t wait to create my own mark on Black Hoosier history!